In defence of long-term planning

In reality, however, over the past six years of economic growth we have seen little sign of this: especially in the planning sector, where the emphasis has been on more flexible interpretation of policies already skewed in favour of more development

In 2013, Labour was elected on the basis of a manifesto which promised to sift major economic policies through social impact assessments to determine the impact on families and society in general. While this proposal was not directly related to planning, it suggested that Labour would be focused on a long-term vision.  

In reality, however, over the past six years of economic growth we have seen little sign of this: especially in the planning sector, where the emphasis has been on more flexible interpretation of policies already skewed in favour of more development.

The Prime Minister now even seems averse to taking long-term planning to the next level.   When recently addressing the Malta Developers’ Association, Muscat declared: “I am absolutely against planning which tries to forecast today what the needs of my children’s children will be 25 years in the future. This is not realistic, and countries, including Malta, which tried to do this, realised they were wasting their time. Things are happening at such a fast pace in today’s world, and technology is developing so quickly, that predicting the future is impossible.”  

While retaining flexibility in the face of technological change is a sensible approach, abandoning the idea of long-term planning borders on the absurd: especially in view of the fact that many of our present day problems derive from lack of planning in the past.  

For example: we all know that Malta has an aging population. It would be absurd if town and country planning and zoning policies did not take this reality into account.

Long-term planning also makes sense with regard to transport. If the country wishes to phase out the importation of fossil fuel cars, it makes no sense to sacrifice more ODZ land to build more fuel stations.  

The argument that we should be flexible in long term planning is also dangerous if taken to an extreme, as it risks putting Malta at the mercy - rather than in control - of economic and technological change.  

Policies aimed at protecting urban, rural and maritime landscapes are important regardless what economic opportunities arise in the future.  We also have to think in terms of the infrastructural carrying capacity of our towns and villages, when contemplating more tourism and residential accommodation.    

Not planning ahead risks undermining the liveability of entire communities condemned to living next to permanent construction sites.  This does not even take account of the needs of an aging population whose, mobility is further undermined by broken and shabby pavements.  

Moreover, a revision of the 2006 local plans - which have practically paved the way for the construction of five-storey blocks in most towns and villages - is urgent.  The onslaught is now even impacting communities living in rural villages like Dingli, while new residential complexes are being proposed next to the village cores of localities like Naxxar.  

Unfortunately the whole exercise, commenced in 2013, was thwarted by hundreds of demands by developers to extend the development zones.  In reality a revision of local plan policies is needed to curtail (not encourage) development and maximize open spaces.   

Muscat is however right in arguing that planning rules cannot be applied universally, and that increased building heights may be more acceptable in some areas than in others.   But that is more reason to plan ahead by enacting a skyline policy.  Nor does it make sense to abandon the idea of master plan for areas like Paceville, in favour approving each development separately in the absence of any holistic policy.

Advance planning also involves making balancing acts which are perfectly acceptable, if the aim is to maximize the public and common good. For example: had road-widening projects been planned with the intention of creating more bus lanes, pedestrian and cycling paths, the sacrifice of agricultural land would be far more acceptable from an environmental and social point of view.

Malta also needs an inventory of brown field sites, especially those in public ownership, to concentrate any future development related to social and economic needs in these areas.  Likewise, we need a stock of publicly owned properties which can be rented at an affordable rate. Therefore, identifying where such development can take place is important.

Muscat is also correct when underlining the contradiction in certain popular arguments. “Some may argue that Malta needs an underground metro system to solve the traffic problem – the excavation of which would lead to the creation of huge amounts of construction debris. In the same breath, however, they might say that they are against land reclamation.”

Yet that is precisely why we need long term planning, which assesses the environmental and social impact of different policy options, before decisions are taken… as opposed to afterwards.  It may well be the case that a mixture of bus lanes, tunnels, monorail and maritime connections may be more suited for a small island than a full blown metro or monorail system.  

That is why Environmental NGOs were right in calling for a Strategic Environmental Assessment on the proposed Gozo tunnel, because it makes no sense to embark on this solution before first assessing alternatives to establish which of these have the least impact on the environment.